Rototilling vs no-till?

I have a heavy clay soil and have been rototilling ever since I was a kid, but now I wonder how that fits in with modern "no-till" ideas. I did create a small trial plot where I applied a huge amount of mulch, and it creates a dilemma, because you still get the weeds but you also have a lot of earthworms that rototilling would chop up. It is not practical to hand work large areas with a fork unless that is all you ever want to do in your life, so I wonder what practical methods are used? Thanks.
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I suggest you look at <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No-dig_gardening and any other sites that can be found using "no dig gardening" as your search phrase. Then I would be glad to answer any questions you have. I've be doing it for about 6 years.
My soil started out as clay, which is not a completely bad thing, as clay holds moisture and nutrients, and keeps them from being washed away. I'd suggest that you try to adjust your gardening beds to about 30% sand, and 5% organic material. Work it in by hand or roto-tiller, and then forget about digging after that. Even this step isn't necessary but it will speed up the transformation of your garden soil.
You may also be interested in "A Farm for A Future" which comes in 5 parts. The first two set up the problem, and the last three address it. It's main purpose is to simplify farming/gardening by gardening smarter, which requires fewer amendments (inputs).
Also "Polyface Farm" <
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sYWYU5V8JOo&feature=related

Mostly, it comes down to growing dirt, and then letting the dirt grow the crops.
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Davej wrote:

I have heavy clay soil that is very hard to work. I ripped it once when I established the garden and not since. In made beds I turn in soil ammendments by hand and it is no great effort (I am not a young man nor super-fit) as the soil there has been broken down from the base clay and I only turn the top 20cm or so maybe once a year or two. At other times I just lay mulch or manure on top and rake it a little. It has many worms but I turn quite gently so few worms are damaged. Aside from harming the worms there is other damage caused by frequent tilling. There is no need at all to be constantly tilling your soil whether it is clay or otherwise. You should have no need of frequent rotatiling.
David
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'David Hare-Scott[_2_ Wrote: > ;955067']Davej wrote:-

> I

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Creating holes in the soil with a broadfork (or pitchfork if you don't have one) just before sheet mulching with manure/cardboard/straw really helps. Makes a big difference and makes all the little soil critters happy.
--
rhubarb


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Davej wrote:

like many gardening answers the area where you live and the weather conditions make a difference. mulching clay too soon in the spring in a cool climate will keep the soil cold longer. some plants like that, others don't. worms are fine with cool and wet, etc.
the best results in the clay here have come from working in well rotted wood chips or shredded bark. depth varies depending upon what will be planted in that space next. i also bury other organic materials too as they become available and if a garden is in between plantings or done for the season. all hand dug with a spade and the clumps are not broken apart much other than if i am planting small seeds and need a fine tilth seed bed. larger seeds that need an inch or more of cover do ok in a more clumpy seed bed.
the last time i tilled an area was three years ago, it was hard and dry and i wanted to level the area. not too many worms if any in that as it was too dry, they all went deeper. after leveling i reseeded with alfalfa and birdsfoot trefoil and use that as a green manure source for gardens and the worm farm.
i find i have much less hand work to do if i plant cover crops which help keep the weed count down and keep the soil active. bare dirt is something i don't like to see any longer in a garden for long. with so many peas and beans that i like it is easy to fill a space quickly or buckwheat will take a bare spot and turn it green in a few weeks time. nice wide leaves and the bees love the flowers. turn that under or chop it and plant right into the stubble. the alfafa and birdsfoot trefoil will seed areas to cover, but until it gets established weeding is needed. oh well, the weeds are good worm food too.
that last sentence has changed much of my attitude about weeding. i used to hate it. now i get out with a nice comfy pillow to sit on and listen to the birds and windchimes and can think about whatever. problem weeds or roots i'll dry out well before recycling. most weeds won't survive being uprooted if dried out on the surface, so i leave them in place if it is a sunny day. if it will be raining i'll keep them aside and dry them later. they feed worms either way, outside or for the worm farm inside. i also pile weeds around the rhubarb. not many manage to regrow after being smothered by rhubarb. and if they do, i get 'em again eventually.
songbird
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Bird is correct that mulching will reduce water evaporation, and cool your soil, but the mulch is also there to feed the mirco-critters in your soil. It is their life cycles of excreting, and dying that enrich the soil and feed your plants. I'm on the north side of a hill, and it takes time for my soil to naturally heat up to 60F (15C) where most of my plants become active. To over come the cooling of the mulch, I cover the beds with clear plastic, that is used by painters to cover floors (available in hardware stores everywhere). Cover the edges and your soil will be heated. This works best with drip irrigation under the plastic. Which is initially a pain in the wazoo, but will make watering for at least the next 5 years very easy, and less time consuming.

I don't plant seeds in mulch. Too many little leaf eating varmints, including those cute little rolly-pollies, use it for cover. I mulch after the plants are established. In plant in mulch with small plants using a dibble to punch a hole in the mulched, newspapered, amended, prepared soil. All those activities use much less energy than spading your soil, and cheaper and less hassel that renting a roto-tiller. Dibbles that I've seen in gardening centers are too small for my staring plants which come out of 72/tray cells. These slide into the hole with little problem. I prefer to use a shove handle that has been sharpened at one end. In case of a 4" X 4" pot, just cut an X in the plastic over the drip emitter. Scrape out a hole, and cover the X with dirt when done.

Was just planting some peas, and when I pushed on the dibble, the worms came wriggling to the surface.

Sounds good :O)

I'd use bird's method for a bed that is already in use, but for an empty bed, it is so much easier to cut the weeds back to an inch or so, add your amendments, cover with newsprint (most newspapers [which are mostly infortainment these days] use a soy based dye, but you may want to check with the paper), cover all with mulch, and wet with hose. I like to do this 6 weeks in advance, but have sometimes done it 2 weeks in advance. (Initially the paper may present a problem of getting water to penetrate exactly where you want it [which is another good reason to use drip], but the paper deteriorates quickly enough in a few weeks.) Then plant.

Add amendments, then newspaper, then mulch, then drip line, then painters plastic, and then cover plastic edges with dirt.
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I have TERRIBLE clay - not really soil, you can literally throw pots with it.
Years ago, I tried "double-digging" it - the whole dig up a row, fill with compost, put the soil back on top back-breaking toil. In very short time, no trace that that had ever been done. So, years ago, I admitted that "fixing" the "soil" was a hopeless task. I now treat it more-or-less as an urban garden on concrete or a rooftop would - I pile horse manure (ideally well-composted, some years are more ideal than others) wherever I want a garden bed, and plant in it. Blueberries are the sole exception - them, I pile all the pine needles available around.
I have lots of worms. In theory the worms would be making holes (I suppose they must) and mixing things into the clay (no sign of that within an inch or two of the compost/clay interface, which is not hard to find even years later - the stuff is _hopeless_.)
I was just doing some bed-rearranging and setting up melon/squash beds, where I went down the the clay interface (piling the compost on another bed), broke the top of the clay up with a "garden claw" hand tool that I find works on it about as fast as the tiller, with less hassle (the tiller keeps claying-up and needs to be scraped clean), and laid a 12" layer of not very aged horse manure on the clay, which gets followed up with the compost that's been there for a while longer and is pretending to be "soil" in my garden. I figure squash are always happiest growing in the compost heap, so why not give them what they want?
The clay was its usual unaffected self - concrete-like when dry, slimy when wet, not resembling anything you'd want in a garden at all, ever. This is perhaps 10-12 years on in this part of the garden. It might be a bit browner for an inch - below that it's the usual gray color. It's had compost and lime (even some gypsum and greensand) flung at it for a decade or more, and it doesn't care.
For my garden and purposes, hauled-in horse manure is the only reason I can grow anything - locally-produced compost makes up a trivial part of my overall, vast, compost use.
In any case, I rarely if ever till the beds. I also don't walk on them. Most weeds pull right out quite easily, as they have not got themselves rooted down in to the awful clay, and the uncompacted compost has not got the holding power that the clay does.
If I cared to spend money on it (I don't) I might try adding (ON TOP of the horse manure) a large amount of sand (and mix that with more horse manure) but I can haul horse manure for the price of gas and my time shovelling, while sand costs me real money. Plus, many sources claim that it's too easy to get worse concrete-like "soil" when adding sand to clay (rather than vice versa) though I have talked with someone who did it (mixed with an equal amount of manure at time of application) and has had a few years of success with that. I've done a small amount on a single bed to get carrots to pretend to be happy a few times.
My horse manure is non-Eliot-Coleman-approved - normal stuff bedded with wood shavings/chips since straw costs MORE than hay around here, and I've only ever seen straw bedding right around the time there was a newborn colt at the farm I usually haul from. Straw is nice, but it ain't happening without someone spending a lot of extra money. While not ideal, this works anyway, and if given adequate time (too often I can't manage that either, at the rate I go through it - other than, it gets there in place on the garden, eventually) it breaks down into perfectly nice material.
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Ecnerwal wrote: ...

whenever we compare our yields and results with the people around us who have sandier soil we always do better. clay might have some tough aspects, but i would not want to replace it with sandy loam for all the gardens -- a few for root veggies, ok.
there are many species of worms, some don't go down very far. look into finding species in your area which work more deeply. night crawlers can go down very deep, but there are others that work in the 6inch to 2feet range.
also, planting deep rooted perennials and treating them as if they are being grazed a few times a season will improve the biological activity of the soil. i try to keep a few of these plants in a garden as they can also act as a host for beneficial bugs for the times when surrounding plants are not. when the garden plants are growing then trimming the alfalfa provides a nice green manure and keeps it from outgrowing the garden veggies. gradually moving these plants around (letting them reseed nearby and then chopping off the old plant) makes deep root channels for garden veggies or worms. the deep roots also help bring up nutrients from below.
digging in fine grained organic materials will help some, but digging in coarser materials like wood chips, charcoal and plant stems seems to do a very good job here. and the area that i fired to make charcoal last season was a great improvement. making me wish i had a lot more wood to burn to turn into charcoal and the bits of surrounding clay that changed texture too. very nice material to work with even when dripping wet it did not stick to the shovel like the surrounding regular clayey soil was doing.
the only thing i would wonder about with your setup is surface water contamination. by using compost on the surface and not digging it in much then a heavy rain could mean nutrient runoff into a ditch, stream, pond, lake, etc. burying compost at least keeps the nutrients more local.
songbird
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